Under-25 staff struts stuff

No wonder Art Howe left Oakland.

Trying to pick between Barry Zito and Mark Mulder really is stressful.

Do you go with Zito's strobe-light curveball and Andy Warhol wardrobe or Mulder's broad shoulders and selection of diving pitches? Who works in front of the other? How can either of them not be at the head of the class?

Luckily for the Athletics, these guys have been too busy having the time of their lives to develop professional jealousy. Along with Tim Hudson, they have carried Oakland to back-to-back 100-victory seasons, and a third is hardly out of the question.

Forgive us for dancing, but this is a question that begs for dodging. Who's better, Zito or Mulder?

For the moment, we'll give Zito the nod in this ranking of baseball's best pitchers who open this season at 25 or younger. After all, he's the reigning Cy Young Award winner.

But if Mulder is not baseball's best young pitcher, he can't rank any worse than second. The Thornwood graduate has won 40 games over the last two seasons, going 40-15. Zito has matched him. His 23-5 performance in 2002 gives him a 40-13 record over two years.

On second thought, Howe shouldn't have gone anywhere—not unless he could have taken at least one of his two aces with him to the New York Mets.

The rest of the Tribune's ranking of the top 10 pitchers 25 or younger:

3. Roy Oswalt, Astros: At 25, the 175-pound Oswalt is proof that power can come in small packages. His fastball can run up to 97 m.p.h. on radar guns, but it is his collection of pitches, as well as his unorthodox delivery, that mesmerizes hitters. He enters his third big-league season with a 33-12 record and 2.91 career ERA. That's not bad for a junior-college pitcher who was landed in the 23rd round of the 1996 draft.

4. Mark Prior, Cubs: Nothing seems to bother the 22-year-old Prior, who may have the easiest heat in the major leagues. His 95 m.p.h. fastball gets on hitters in a hurry because of his ultrasmooth delivery and snapping curveball. He paints the corners when he's on and has a mind that will be another weapon once he gets to know National League hitters a little better. Manager Dusty Baker will handle him with care, but he is conditioned to work 200 innings in his first full season.

5. Mark Buehrle, White Sox: This is one confident 24-year-old. Buehrle turned down a contract extension that would have guaranteed him $11.5 million over three years because he believes his 39-21 career record is no fluke. He has shown himself to be a workhorse, averaging 230 innings the last two seasons. While he doesn't overpower hitters, a Cy Young season isn't out of the question at some point soon.

6. C.C. Sabathia, Indians: Success may have come too quickly for the 22-year-old Sabathia, who received a spot in Cleveland's starting rotation at 20 and a four-year contract at 21. He reported out of shape last season and still went 13-11 with 210 innings for an undermanned lineup. The big lefty is in better shape this spring and should be even tougher than he was last season.

7. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays: While Halladay is not exactly in a witness-relocation program, there are better ways to get noticed than pitching in Toronto these days. The 25-year-old right-hander won 13 of 16 starts in one stretch last season and finished with 19 victories, raising his career record to 37-24. He led the AL in innings with 2391/3, getting one more out than Buehrle. He can hit 95 m.p.h. on the gun, throws a big curve and moves the ball around.

8. Kerry Wood, Cubs: Outside of Randy Johnson and perhaps Pedro Martinez, nobody takes fans on more thrill rides. But since winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1998, the 25-year-old Wood is 32-24. He's only two years from free agency and hasn't eclipsed the 13 victories he had in '98. The Cubs are getting to the point where they will have to face a difficult decision—sign him to a rich, long-term contract or trade him and sign Matt Clement instead.

9. Vicente Padilla, Phillies: Philadelphia pitching coach Joe Kerrigan says the 25-year-old Padilla has "stuff" as good as Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox's three-time Cy Young Award winner. That might seem like hyperbole, but don't forget this is a pitcher who reached the big leagues in his first pro season, which was with Arizona. It has taken Padilla one trade and three seasons to blossom, but he's here to stay. He'll benefit from working alongside Kevin Millwood.

10. Joel Pineiro, Mariners: There is nothing especially eye-catching about the 24-year-old Pineiro, but he's a bulldog when he has to be. He limited opponents to a .193 batting average with men in scoring position compared with a .272 average otherwise. He opened the 2002 season in the bullpen but pitched so well once he got a chance that he ended the year with 194 1/3 innings pitched.